We’ve all heard the old expression that a picture is worth a thousand words. This seems especially true in today’s digitally driven world of Facebook and Instagram. But, if someone else is writing about an image, it’s important to think about context and perspective.
A particularly relevant example is an image that’s been making its way around the web this week: a side-by-side comparison of aerial views of the National Mall at former President Obama’s inauguration and Friday’s inauguration of President Trump.
Credit: PBS NewsHour | Photos by Reuters and Pool Camera.
You’ve probably seen this via a post from one of your most liberal friends on social media. The two photographs, placed next to one another, are hyped as demonstrating a dampened support for our new POTUS as compared to his predecessor. Intrinsically (or extrinsically, depending on the particular description of the post) is that there is far less support for President Trump than there was for President Obama. Critics of the election results and of our new president believe that this picture is hard evidence of Trump’s lack of national support. But are the photographs fair in what they claim to portray? It’s worth taking a closer look.
Full disclosure: there’s no arguing that Obama drew a bigger crowd than President Trump at his inauguration. In fact, former President Obama’s inauguration is believed to have drawn the biggest crowd to the National Mall in modern history. Indeed, his inauguration contained historic elements that contributed to its crowd draw. We won’t argue that. The question is whether the two crowds were as disparate as the photos suggest.
As it turns out, there are important differences in the context of the photographs. One emerges when we look at how (or more accurately, when) the pictures were taken. The other comes to light when we consider the demographics of Washington, D.C.
First, the photograph of President Obama’s inauguration turnout was taken at 11:30 a.m, while the comparison shot of President Trump’s crowd was snapped off 26 minutes earlier, at 11:04 a.m. Context. As event time closes in, more folks tend to show up. While the time difference doesn’t mean that President Trump’s supporters grew in number over 26 minutes to match Obama’s, it does indicate that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Second, let’s remember the inauguration happened in Washington. It seems facile to note such an obvious fact, but, again, context. We’re talking about a town that votes 90 percent Democrat or better in every election. Sure, some people will travel for an inauguration, and I’m sure many did this past Friday. But there’s always going to be more local enthusiasm for a Democrat inauguration, because the Democrats are very much the home team in D.C.
So whether you’re a die-hard Democrat or life-long Republican, there should be a few things we can agree on about the two inauguration photographs. They aren’t analogs of events under the same circumstances; the context underlying each is different. Maybe President Trump isn’t stepping into the level of fanfare given to President Obama, but this isn’t the kind of thing that one photograph (or two) can capture. It will take more than a thousand words to explain the difference in support for these two presidents. And then, only time will tell.